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The 18th century was the age of reason, and the 19th century the cradle of science. The 20th century was dubbed the Century of War and Peace. The 21st century could be the Century of Reflection. But what place the internet?
One of the most exciting scientific developments in recent years has been the emergence of the internet as a means of communication and as a medium for the revelation of imaginative creativity by people previously unknown to science, literature, or the humanities. Lots of junk and some nuggets are jumbled up in cyberspace and most of us will not find time to surf between the flotsam and jetsam in search of the gold. Instead we rely on focused searches in our field of concern. Chain mail passed on by someone you know is, however, always a distraction.
The following piece of prose is an example. It originated in the USA and it was posted around the world for “Happy Friendship Week” early in 2002. The originator is named as Andy Rooney. It was then passed from desk to desk in an accelerating international cybercascade with the request that it be read reflectively and then passed on to friends. It is reproduced here at some length, before comment.
I’ve learned . . . That the best classroom in the world is at the feet of an elderly person.
I’ve learned . . . That when you are in love it shows.
That just one person saying to me, “You’ve made my day!” makes my day.
That having a child fall asleep in your arms is one of the most peaceful things in the world.
That being kind is more important than being right.
That you should never say no to a gift from a child.
That I can always pray for someone when I don’t have the strength to help him otherwise.
That no matter how serious your life requires you to be, you need a friend to act daft with.
That sometimes all a person needs is a hand to hold and a heart to understand.
That simple walks with my father around the block on summer nights when I was a child did wonders for me as an adult.
That life is like a roll of toilet paper. The closer you get to the end, the faster it goes.
That we should be glad God doesn’t give us everything we ask for.
That money does not buy class.
That it’s those small daily happenings that make life so spectacular.
That under everyone’s hard shell is someone who wants to be appreciated and loved.
That the Lord didn’t do it all in one day; what makes me think I can?
That to ignore the facts does not change the facts.
That when you plan to get even with someone, you are only letting that person continue to hurt you.
That love, not time, heals wounds.
That the easiest way for me to grow as a person is to surround myself with people smarter than I am.
That everyone you meet deserves to be greeted with a smile.
That there’s nothing sweeter than sleeping with your babies and feeling their breath on your cheeks.
That no one is perfect until you fall in love with them.
That life is tough, but I am tougher.
That opportunities are never lost; someone will take the ones you miss.
That when you harbour bitterness, happiness will dock in elsewhere.
That I wish I could have told my Dad that I love him one more time before he passed away.
That one should keep one’s words both soft and tender, because tomorrow I may have to eat them.
That a smile is an inexpensive way to improve your looks.
That I can’t choose how I feel, but I can choose what I do about it.
That when your newly born grandchild holds your little finger in his little fist, you are hooked for life.
That everyone want to live on top of the mountain, but all the happiness and growth occurs while you are climbing it.
That it is best to give advice in only two circumstances; when it is requested and when it is a life threatening situation.
That the less time you have to work with, the more things I get done.
Comment and hypothesis
Why does such a piece of writing cascade around cyberspace, spurred on by ordinary people? Most of us press the “delete” button when chain mail arrives on screen. What made me want to pass this one on to others?
Downie provides a clue when he quotes both Coleridge and Wordsworth saying, “the function of the poet is that of removing the film of familiarity which coats everyday objects and situations, and thus making us more vividly aware of them”.1 This is important because most people don’t spend their days in wonder and excitement about the ordinary events and objects around them. Familiarity numbs the imagination, and crude jokes or banter about anything are a more common currency. Everyday experience then becomes a vehicle for black humour and ribaldry. The comedian scores a point and pokes a finger, but he seldom encourages deeper reflection. The carton makes one smile wryly, but it is unusual for it to kindle feelings of wonder or beauty about the world around us. Wonder is a very creative force in science and art and humanity.1,2 Wonder is what children are very good at before they become too educated.
It would be easy to trivialise the Enlightened Perspectives by providing banter responses to each line in the passage quoted. It would also be possible to plumb new theological depths by referencing each line to texts in the Bible and the Koran. Both courses would be pleasing to someone. The important question, however, concerns why it is that so many people are willing to pass on via the internet a range of jokes and reflective prose or poetry to their friends.
There are many possible answers to this question, so let me construct a hypothesis in an attempt to explain the phenomena based on the evidence above, and in the hope that this may start further debate in these columns:
All people need deep relationships and deeply reflective thoughts/prayers to be inwardly fulfilled, and to have personal growth. Yet most of them have few outlets for expression of these needs in the modern world. Most are forced to function at a very superficial day to day level, and so they cope by poking fun at anything and everything. Indeed humour is often a heroic means of coping with danger or a drab existence. Men tend to be more inhibited than women in expressing their deeper needs, and they are often less technophobic. The internet provides them with a safe arm’s length solution to their need for expression when feeling alone.
If such a hypothesis has some face validity then it needs to be tested because the internet may provide creative therapy for those with no other way to clarify their deeper needs. Story telling and poetry have much in common3 and one man’s egocentric poem can be another man’s liberation from feeling misunderstood. But what will this do for the development of the humanities? Will the rough hewn verses of untutored people rise in the halls of fame? Or will the professionals cry “Foul” and relegate those nuggets to the bottom of the league?